This is a discussion of all the different ways that a dancer can take one hand or arm with another dancer with the intention of rotating around a point centred between them.
There are many names for this concept; they include:
Notes: "Allemande" is a popular term and has been used to mean many different moves over the centuries. Here I mean it as it used in contra dancing and square dancing today: to turn someone with one hand or arm. This page is about moves where the dancers take either left hand to left hand, or right hand to right hand, facing in opposite directions; therefore it does not include Gates or Wheel-Arounds where the dancers are facing in the same direction.
The topic of how to do a good Allemande appears on dance forums regularly. Many of the words of wisdom below come from other callers who have expressed their feelings on these forums. Thanks to all those who have contributed to these discussions.
What makes a good hold for this type of turn?
Consideration: Rule Number One: "Everyone is entitled to have fun on the dance-floor without getting hurt." Anything involving hitting, gripping, pulling, pushing, twisting, etc. may well hurt your partner. They may have weaknesses or injuries of which you are unaware, thus exacerbating any such rough action. Thumbs are dangerous. They should never be used to press on your partner or to grip them. Many dancers have complained that they have had their arm or shoulder wrenched as they tried to move on to the next move, because the other dancer would not let go.
Connection: In simple dances where you Allemande Right then Allemande Left with the same person, it is easy to finish where you started, regardless of how far you actually managed to turn. Much modern choreography is less forgiving, often requiring you to turn one and a half times, or even twice, in the same eight steps. Being well connected to your partner means that you can achieve this much more easily, since you can help each other to get around. You need to act as a single counter-balanced entity, rotating around a shared point centred between you
Effectiveness: Apart from how effective the hold is in helping you and your partner get around each other, it is also important to be able to get into the hold quickly and easily and to exit from the hold quickly and easily, especially when you wish to spin out of the hold.
The Curved Hand Shape
For most good holds the hand shape involves a flat wrist, curved fingers, and the thumb out of the way. Wrists are strongest when straight; fingers are strongest when curved. This is their natural state. Imagine trying to pull an oar, do a chin-up or carry a heavy briefcase with straight fingers and a bent wrist!
This is a good hand shape for a modern contra dance Allemande:
It is also the shape you make in contra dancing for Wrist-Lock Stars, for Waves, and for some symmetrical swings, including the Cupped Elbow Forearm Hold.
The Contra Allemande Hold
To make a Contra Allemande Hold the dancers make the curved hand shape, place their palms together, gently wrap their fingers around the other person's hand without gripping, and make a "W" shape with their arms:
For this hold keep your thumb with your fingers. I will cover the interlocked-thumbs variant below.
Your hands are hooks, not grips. Connect smoothly without jerking and don't grip. Make sure you are well apart, with your hands centred between you, and arms extended and symmetrical, well away from your chest. Don't pull your partner's hand towards you. Your objective is to keep the hands mid-way between you. As you dance around your partner, only use your muscles to fight centrifugal force, not your partner.
The top of your hand and the top of your forearm should form a line, ensuring that neither person's wrist is contorted. The arm is not held stiffly, but used as a spring to maintain a comfortable connection with the other dancer.
Start moving as you connect, and, once you have a good connection, relax and focus on your feet. Quite often dancers are so focussed on the hands that they forget that the only way to actually get around is to move their feet; and if you have to go around more than once then you need to take big steps.
Modern contra dancers like to spin out of the Allemande. This hold is really good for this as you can disconnect so easily, and, if necessary, you can use the other person's palm as a platform to push off. Many dancers make the mistake of thinking they can help the other person spin by pushing them. It is extremely unlikely that you will actually push with exactly the right amount of force, at exactly the right time, and in exactly the right direction. You are much more likely to either put them off balance or hurt them. If you feel that the other person is about to spin then the best way you can help is by stiffening your arm slightly so that you provide a platform for them to push off from, thus leaving them in control. If you want to spin then you will help yourself much more by using your other arm to generate rotational momentum than by pushing off; prepare your spare arm wide out to the side, then quickly curve it in towards your body as you start the spin - just watch some ice-skaters and you'll get the idea!
Whether either of you is spinning or not, always allow the other dancer to leave the Allemande comfortably at the end of the turn. If you grip their hand, twist your wrist, bend your arm, or pull your arm closer to your body, then your partner will be not able to exit comfortably.
The Interlocked-Thumbs Contra Allemande Hold
This used to be the standard contra dance hold. I have danced over all America at local clubs and festivals and find that nowadays dancers don't offer interlocked thumbs. I think this is a good thing!
If you don't interlock thumbs then:
It is much harder to grip the other person's hand.
It is much easier to exit comfortably.
It is much better if you want to spin out of the Allemande.
The same applies to the spinning Rory O'More move when you are in Waves, thus reinforcing the idea that interlocked thumbs are bad.
Waltz-Time Fingertip Hold
Waltz-time dances are generally slower and more graceful; they rarely require you to get around more than once; they look good if you get far apart and make big sweeping movements. So this hold works very well for waltz-time dances and other graceful dances. The connection is not great, but more than adequate when you have twelve steps to complete a single turn.
Hooked Fingers Hold
This is the standard hold in most English Country Dance sessions in America and at most Folk Dance Clubs in England. You start by hooking your fingers together as in the second picture, then close your hand up slightly, keeping the thumbs floating free, as in the first picture. This makes a good connection, though not as good as the Contra Allemande Hold if you have to get around more than once.
The challenge with this hold is that it is very easy to be over-zealous and grip the other person's hand with your fingers or press on their hand with your thumb. The same rules apply as for the Contra Allemande Hold: Your hands are hooks, not grips. Connect smoothly without jerking and don't grip.
Dancers who use this hold in Allemandes tend to use the same hold in Waves. It is not so easy to spin out of this hold as disconnection is slightly harder and there is no platform from which to push off. On the other hand, when you are in Tidal Waves (Long Wavy Lines), and the set stretches out too far, you may end up with this hold anyway!
Forearm Hold with Cupped Elbow
Many Traditional and Ceilidh dances such as Nottingham Swing, Clopton Bridge and The Fast Packet use a Hornpipe Step (Step-Hop) at 80 to 90 bpm. When you are bouncing up and down you need a different type of connection. The standard hold for dances like this is to cup your partner's elbow. You get close together so your upper arm is almost vertical, place your forearms together, and gently hook your hand just above your partner's elbow. Note that the thumbs are with the fingers so that you don't grip. This is a great connection, allowing you, with a Hornpipe Step, to get around three times easily (although most dances just specify twice around)!
If you join your hooked left hands underneath then you also have a great ceilidh swing hold for Hornpipe, skipping or buzz-step swings.
Forearm Hold - Below Elbow
This is the hold in Modern Western Square Dancing. CALLERLAB specifies:
"Forearm: The arms are held past the wrist but not past the elbow joint. Each dancer places the hand on the inside of the arm of the person with whom he is to work. The fingers and thumb are held in close. The center of the turn will be at the joined arms, so, while turning, each dancer is moving equally around the other."
Regardless of what the definition means by "the fingers and thumb are held in close", unless you grip as shown in the picture then you have virtually no connection. All the MWSD clubs I have been to use the hold shown in the picture.
While this is effective I find it most uncomfortable: the other person grips to get connection; I often find the webbing between my thumb and index finger rammed up against the inside of my partner's elbow. I much prefer the Cupped Elbow Hold.
You can see this hold being used back in 1951 in this video at 5:24. I don't know of anyone who uses this hold today.
This is the standard hold for "Arming". It is so simple that it is also one of the best ways to get beginners to do hand/arm turns at barn dances/one night stands. If you can persuade the dancers to relax and let their hand hang down below their elbow then it can be comfortable and effective.
Palm to Palm
Completely ineffective for zesty dances, but very popular in historical drama, allowing the dancers to look lovingly into each other's eyes as they walk slowly around each other. Occasionally used in modern choreography such as Peter Amidon's "Kings and Queens", where it works fine when the music is slow.
Fist to Fist
This is a defensive "hold". There are lots of ways to hurt people in Allemandes - see below. Some callers teach that if you are approaching a dancer that you know is likely to hurt you, or if you have an injury that prevents you doing a normal Allemande, then offer a fist instead. You can also attempt an alternative hold such as the Cupped Elbow Hold.
How NOT to Allemande!
Despite all the efforts of callers, some people still do all these strange and terrible things:
You've bent my wrist! Ouch!
Why are you arm-wrestling and pulling my hand towards your chest? Ouch!
Why have you pulled your elbow behind your body so that I am in an awkard position? Ouch!
Flat hands? There's no connection! So you've tensed your hand up to make it hard and pressed it against mine? Ouch!
Put the base of your palm against mine and stop squeezing my fingers! Ouch!
The inside of my wrist is tender, stop pressing on it! Ouch!
The inside of my forearm is tender too! Ouch!
In this hold the arms are close and almost vertical with twisted wrists. If somone did this to me in a contra dance I would be most upset. Just taking the hold was uncomfortable for Karen. But this is, apparently, a standard hold in Scottish Country Dancing, known as the Quick Turn Grip or the Cleekit Grip.
An example of bad arming where one dancer has clamped the other dancer's arm by pulling their arm towards themself and raising their hand up too high! Ouch!
And then there is "The Wham Connection"!
One caller wrote: "Some people have approached me for an allemande with a percussive force akin to a punch or slap. Wham! I have a variety of hand/arm issues and the percussive impact of the initial allemande contact sends a jolt all the way up to the shoulder. I have been forced to hold my hand/arm back until the last second (when the force has dissipated) or even set it up so the other dancer whiffs past my hand altogether. When did whacking someone's hand for an allemande become acceptable or appropriate?"
I agree entirely. Some people seem to think that doing a High-Five adds energy? But not only is it too dangerous, it also delays getting a good connection and wastes time that should be used to get around each other. Last time I saw a high speed hand coming towards me I avoided contact completely, turned it into a Gypsy and got around faster anyway (I just knew that, after trying to hurt me, he was then going to focus on arm-wrestling and forget about actually moving!).
Other Poor Connections!
These are what beginners tend to do when given no instruction. There is no connection so they don't make for great turns. Why not give them some instruction?
I have seen people teach a Gypsy be getting beginners to do this! Looks dangerous to me, and completely loses the point of a Gypsy, especially when the dancers continue to use the hold after learning the move. Not recommended!
Hand modelling: John & Karen Sweeney. Photography: Brenda Hodges.
Comments, suggestions, corrections are all very welcome.